By the time Norman Finkelstein began his Tuesday night lecture "Palestine & Israel: Roots of Conflict, Prospects for Peace," Thomas Great Hall was approximately three quarters full. The evening represented the culmination of over a month of debate, but even a subject as divisive as academic representations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict proved deferent to student consideration for the honor code.
Some demonstrations against Finkelstein did take place, but were rather understated considering the concerns of administrators and students alike in the days preceding the lecture. Public safety maintained a light presence throughout the course of the talk to ensure students and community members conducted themselves appropriately, but such precautions proved unnecessary.
Students from Bryn Mawr and Haverford who opposed the message Finkelstein brought to campus walked through the space handing out flyers encouraging students to question him. At the start of the course of the speech, a group of students walked out of the lecture en masse.
Finkelstein's lecture, sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine, with additional financial support provided by the SGA Special Events Fund, the History Department, The Middle East Studies Initiative, and Peace & Conflict Studies, contended that a refusal by the Israeli government to comply with international law forms the basis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
According to Finkelstein, "If you look at the past, present, and the future, the actual documentary record is remarkably uncontroversial. And in fact I daresay… probably is the least controversial conflict currently in the world, when you look at the record."
Finkelstein argues that "The preponderance of the controversy… is fabricated, it's contrived, it's conjured up. And the purpose of this fabricated controversy is… to sew confusion about the actual documentary record, and to deflect attention from that record."
The Bi-College News offered students the opportunity to share their thoughts about Norman Finkelstein's talk anonymously via online survey.
Many students gave the lecture a positive review. One student said of the event, "The lecture itself was well structured, all the points it made were backed up with substantial evidence. Lectures and speakers like this should be encouraged; a puncture in the bubble that surrounds university life is crucial for our development as global citizens."
This opinion, as our poll demonstrated, was not universally held. Of the poll's respondents, a full 24.6% said they were offended by the content of Norman Finkelstein's speech. One of those students offered the following comment.
"I agree that the Israeli government has made and continues to make pretty huge mistakes, but that does not mean that Israel should not exist, or that the Palestinian government hasn't taken some missteps, too. It is a complex issue, otherwise people wouldn't be dying because of it, and as a liberal Jew at Bryn Mawr, I felt alienated in my own home last night."
Finkelstein's presentation was methodical, first attempting to overturn what he sees as distortions of the historical, human rights, and diplomatic records. He then moved on to discuss the ways in which, he believes this record is obscured.
"First of all, it's designed to get people to suspend their ordinary legal and moral judgments… the other reason to claim the uniqueness of the conflict, is to preempt people making the obvious analogies, because when you make the obvious analogies between the Israel-Palestine conflict and other conflicts, Israel always ends up on the wrong side." Finkelstein said.
Finkelstein illustrated his point by drawing rather contentious analogies to apartheid South Africa and the dispossession of Native Americans. "It's not Israel that's on the ‘trail of tears.'"
His second claim was that there is a "Uniqueness doctrine" surrounding the Holocaust, "the claim that the suffering of the Jews was unique in the annals of humankind, and can't be compared to any other suffering."
He condemned this notion, saying, "Intellectually, it's completely vacuous, morally it's an abomination – this attempt to rank human suffering. But politically, it's proven quite useful, because if you can claim that Jews suffered uniquely, then you can argue that they shouldn't be held to the same moral and legal standards as everyone else."
Finkelstein argued that "Holocaust card" figures prominently in the Israel-Palestine discourse, "Every time Israel faces a public relations debacle… a new production is orchestrated of a ‘new anti-Semitism.'"
The DePaul Professor dismissed recent claims of a new anti-Semitism on college campuses, arguing, "[C]olleges and universities are so politically correct nowadays that you can't be anti-anything!"
Finkelstein also offered his audience an insight into his long-standing feud with Alan Dershowitz, a well-known Harvard Law School Professor. In reference to one of Dershowitz's recent books, Finkelstein said, "In many ways the most depressing aspect of this conflict is the extent to which it's riddled with fraud and fakery, the proliferation of sheer nonsense which passes for scholarship on the conflict."
Finkelstein ended with a rally cry of sorts, telling his audience, "If we learn how to wield those weapons, then no matter how much power they have, and they have power, and no matter how much money they have, and they have lots of money, and no matter how ruthless they are, and they are surely ruthless, I remain absolutely confident, more optimistic than ever, that if we learn how to wield those weapons of truth and justice, we can yet carry the day, and achieve what any reasonable, rational person wants: a lasting peace, and a just settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict."
At the beginning of the pre-submitted question section of the talk, Finkelstein allowed for two hostile questions. The first challenged him to explain why prominent holocaust deniers and anti-Semites believe his work to be supportive of their beliefs.
"The fact that truth may be misused by the wrong people does not mean the statements are untrue," countered Finkelstein.
Another questioner asked him how he proposed to handle what the questioner framed as growing tide anti-Semitism in the Middle East.
Finkelstein, who lived in the occupied territories and recently returned for what he believed to be the fifteenth time, said that a satisfactory resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, specifically the two sate solution, would reduce anti-Semitism to a manageable level.
"I would say, in my experience, the least anti-Semitism I've ever experienced in the world was around the Palestinians. " Said Finkelstein. He qualified this assertion, saying Palestinian resentment against Jews is situational, springing from the harsh realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Treat people with decency. Treat people with respect. I lived there. There was only one thing I feared when I lived in the occupied territories, one, I feared the Israeli army. They're crazy."
One of the final questions asked Finkelstein why he doesn't devote equal time in his talks to the discussion of Palestinian propaganda, choosing instead to focus on what he has termed "The Holocaust Industry."
Finkelstein offered a passionate response. "I am the very last person on God's earth, speaking as an atheist, the last person on God's earth, who would in any way, shape, manner, or form, want to, in any way, even a jot, and iota, or a scratch, minimize the horrific suffering that Jews endured during World War Two. Both from a personal and a professional point of view, I consider that an obscenity."
Finkelstein went on to suggest that he feels the Palestinian equivalents to the "Holocaust Industry" are not disputed in the United States, and therefore do not warrant the same degree of attention.
The rescheduled lecture provoked diverse reactions that promise to have an impact on campus politics, and student representations of the Israel-Palestine conflict, well into the future.